By season’s end last year, Michigan transformed from a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team to America’s darling.
The Wolverines captivated the nation after they endured a harrowing plane mishap and turned the near tragedy to postseason triumph, a team of destiny riding a wave of emotion and momentum to the Big Ten Tournament title and a Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
It made for an incredible story. But that magical chapter has closed and the cast of characters has changed.
And after Michigan returned its entire starting lineup for its memorable 2016-17 campaign, the Wolverines won’t have that luxury this time around. Heart-and-soul guard Derrick Walton Jr. is gone along with lockdown wing Zak Irvin and versatile forward D.J. Wilson.
All that remains is energetic center Moritz Wagner, under-the-radar guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, premier 3-point threat Duncan Robinson, backup point guard Zavier Simpson and little-used reserves Ibi Watson and Jon Teske.
Add three freshmen (guards Jordan Poole and Eli Brooks, and forward Isaiah Livers), two transfers (guard Jaaron Simmons and wing Charles Matthews), two new assistant coaches (Luke Yaklich and DeAndre Haynes) and a redshirt (center Austin Davis) into the fray, and Michigan coach John Beilein will be relying on an array of new faces — some fresh and some familiar — to take the Wolverines places this season.
“The last couple years we’ve been really spoiled,” Beilein said during the team’s media day two weeks ago. “Two years ago, we had Moe and that was like the only new guy. Last year we had three (freshmen) and none of them had to be great last year to make us good.
“Now we’re trying to get all the young guys that didn’t play last year — there’s four of them — and then three new guys. There’s seven new guys — really eight new guys counting Charles.”
It’s no secret there will be plenty of ups and downs as Beilein and his staff work out the kinks. That’s usually what happens when a new starting point guard — who is still to be determined — will be running the offense for the first time in four years, and newcomers are learning how to play in Beilein’s system as well as with one another.
Couple that with the moving pieces in the rotation, the new defensive principles implemented by de facto defensive coordinator Yaklich, and the challenge of getting young players to play “unconsciously competent,” Beilein was frank that the Wolverines are “average at everything and not great at anything” heading into the season.
“We say every day are we going to play hard or are we going play smart?” Beilein said. “We’re not playing as smart as we will as you just watch the progression this year. That’ll be the hope with really six new guys out there and only three guys with any type of real game experience. It’s going to be a process and you know we’re going to embrace that.
“We’re not very good right now, but we will continue to grow.”
And growth is going to have to come from everyone up and down the bench if the Wolverines are going to have a chance at winning their first Big Ten regular-season title since 2014 and reaching the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year.
Wagner, who went from a virtual unknown at the beginning of last season to now arguably one of the top 20 big men in the nation, isn’t going to sneak up and surprise anyone this year. Neither will seniors Abdur-Rahkman or Robinson, who each played in every game last season and averaged at least 20 minutes. But the three can only do so much.
That means the training wheels will come off for Davis and Teske as they’ll be counted on to bang in the paint and produce on both ends of the floor in actual games and not just practice. Same goes for Watson, who won’t be seeing the floor strictly in mop-up duty anymore.
Simpson won’t be relied upon to simply provide a breather a couple of minutes at a time, but to breathe life into Michigan’s offense along with Simmons.
For all the rave reviews about Matthews’ defense, he flashed his scoring potential and a willingness to shoulder the load in Michigan’s exhibition rout over Division II Grand Valley State, a burden he’ll likely have to carry at times throughout the season.
And if injuries — cue Beilein knocking on wood — or foul trouble arises, Brooks, Livers and Poole will have to be at the ready because this season might just require contributions from everyone.
The Wolverines also will have to grow together quickly with a nonconference schedule that could feature three ranked opponents in a seven-game stretch, with a possible second-round matchup against No. 14 Notre Dame in the Maui Invitational followed by showdowns with reigning national champion and No. 9 North Carolina and No. 21 UCLA.
“I hope I’m not being a Debbie Downer here with this thing, I’m just saying that our early schedule we’re going to be hit with stuff,” Beilein said. “We’re going to have to be patient and watch it. I hate it that we continue to try to rebuild or reinvent every year but it’s pretty much — except for a couple years — it’s been the story.”
Michigan will begin writing its new chapter when it hosts North Florida at 7:30 p.m. Saturday to kick off the season.
But before the journey starts, the Wolverines will raise their Big Ten Tournament championship banner as a reminder that the only rainbow that comes at the end is one that’s earned.
“When you win, you go into the season with the expectation to win more and with the feeling that if you really commit to something and work for it, it’s doable, it’s possible,” Wagner said. “It’s an inspiration. We’ve been there now, so let’s do it again.”